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In a quiet studio apartment near Rehov Ahad Ha'am in Tel Aviv, Guy Abraham is working on comic books that don't include superheroes, sex, violence or drugs. Illustrating Jewish spiritual texts taken from ancient and sometimes obscure books such as the Zohar, Midrash Shmuel, Etz Haim and S'fat Emet, he is trying to fuse two universes that traditionally stand in opposition to one another: spiritual texts and comic book art.
Abraham, a soft-spoken, slim young man, chose hazara be'tshuva, or return to religious observance, after starting out in the comic book industry. While he was undergoing his own transformation, Israel's comics industry was experiencing a transformation of its own in recent years. What was a common site in newspapers and books during the early days of the state, then became a commercial failure in the 1970s and 1980s that attempted to mimic the child-directed superhero genre that succeeds abroad, is now a more mature and diverse collection of adult-themed books that is beginning to register modest successes.
THAT JEWS have dominated the comics business in the United States is well known. Marvel Comics, DC Comics and EC Comics were originally created or owned by Jews. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were also Jewish; Michael Chabon's wildly popular novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was based on the Jewish influence on the early days of American comics. Two Israelis, Avi Arad and Isaac Perlmutter, own Marvel today.
In Israel, however, children's comic books represent such a small market that few Israeli superheroes have ever enjoyed much commercial success. Aside from Uri Fink, who has created a series of humorous superheroes that appeal to teenagers, and who is currently publishing Golem on Ynet - a weekly comic strip about an Israeli superhero protecting the Jewish state - only one other Israeli superhero is currently in print: The Mightiest Blue, by Ofer Zamzuchi. That title has just reached its sixth issue.
"It's harder to do mainstream comics that appeal to the masses because the line between real and ridiculous is so fine that most people who try to draw it end up looking silly," says Youval Sharon, owner of the Tel Aviv shop Comics and Vegetables. "But alternative comics are growing and reaching more and more people because they don't involve characters in caves; they explore real life that readers can relate to."
Most of the underground comics in Israel are concerned with mature themes in realistic contexts that appeal to a minority and are usually published by the comic artists themselves, says Sharon, who opened his comic book store a little over a year ago.
Comics are taking a spotlight as an art form for adults - not just in Israel but around the world - says Sharon, whose customers are usually males between 20 and 30. But large publishing houses are now investing in comic books and more and more artists are joining the scene with fresh, creative story lines, he adds, increasing the chances for artists to reach a wider audience.
"People think comics are only superheroes, but the Israeli artists are looking at contemporary society and culture," says Sharon.
A PRIME example of that is Sippur Varod, a comic book that explores the homosexual universe of a lesbian living in Tel Aviv. When Mapa, one of the largest Israeli publishing houses, recently decided to publish the comic book, it was a landmark.
"The book is both historical and autobiographical," says Ilana Zeffren, the artist who created Sippur Varod. "I discuss the larger historical events in parallel to my own lesbian identity," she explains.
Zeffren wanted to tell her personal story in a way that would educate her readers about the community and its history through artistic images and dialogue without the loftiness of higher art forms, such as literature or paintings.
That's not unlike the point behind Shirley! A Sex Comedy. The comic book by Amitai Sandy and Noa Abarbanel takes a closer look at the life of a young Israeli girl who serves her time in the army, studies business management and communication at university and starts her first job in a call center. Throughout the book, her sexual adventures are recounted in detail, and her biggest problem is that the opposite sex does not seem to get her jokes or find them appropriate for the intimate situations in which she tells them.
Sandy studied graphic design at the prestigious Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and is a member of the Dimona Comix group. He started drawing comics at 15, and by the age of 17 he was publishing a magazine in Israel called Penguin's Perversions. "PP," as he affectionately calls it, was dedicated to humor but also contained some satire and indirect political criticism.
"We were trying to reach as many people as possible and keep comics from turning into the closed, nerdy group it tends to be in other countries," says Sandy. "Noa was a journalist and she's great with the dialogue writing," he adds.
Shirley! is not an unmitigated success, however. The first book has been translated into English, but it is still falling through the cracks in publishing houses abroad.
"The porn publishers call it a 'slice of life' and the alternative publishers call it porn because it has a lot of sex in it," explains Sandy. "But most of our readers get the point and understand that it's just a story about real life for a young Israeli girl. And the advantage in Israel is that the lines between genres are not so rigidly set. You can still convince people here to try new things."
Abraham's goals are different, of course.
"I do my work," he says, barely glancing away from his new book, Tzelem, "in the name of God."
Abraham's long black beard and conservative dress indicate his commitment to Orthodoxy - a commitment, he believes, that his art only serves to deepen.
"I am taking comics to a different world and giving it a more profound meaning," Abraham explains. "Our society is surrounded by violence and sex, but I am trying to make something pure and significant with my art."
In Abraham's new book, the main character goes through a spiritual transformation as he realizes that it takes the eyes of a child and acts of kindness to see the truth. The story unfolds with few words in a world where circular objects and color are unknown. A round yellow sun exists only in legends, and everything in this industrial universe has a harsh edge. But one boy, who is able to see beyond his drab surroundings, at last discovers a true vision that lies beyond the closed walls of society.
Abraham chooses to express his ideas in the comic book medium because it gives him the freedom to tell a story through images, and his inspirational sources - Jewish spiritual writings - are endless. Like the creators of Sippur Varod and Shirley! A Sex Comedy, Abraham hopes that the messages in his comic books will touch a larger audience than just his own community.
"I'm using legends and fantastic stories from Jewish texts that speak of deep secrets and hidden realities," he says. "I'm also hoping to translate my books so that Jewish communities abroad will want to read them and learn more about Judaism through comic books that are close to life."
THE ABILITY to take political and cultural ideas and put them into an accessible form that the masses can enjoy is part of the appeal of comic books, says Ze'ev Engelmayer, a sort of elder statesman of Israeli comics.
"Art often looks at you from a higher place, whereas comics look you straight in the eyes," he says. "You can say anything you want in them, and it is a wonderful medium to reach people and discuss current events."
That's something that Engelmayer has been doing for decades, from his years of publishing comic strips in smaller newspapers to his comic illustrations in Yediot Aharonot. Early in his career - and even today - he says that he has had to first explain to an editor what a comic strip is before discussing topics. Newspapers have also often considered comic strips as unimportant space fillers, not "real" content.
But despite a slow beginning, the comic book industry seems at last to be reaching more people, and more comic book festivals, activities and exhibitions are taking place in Israel now than ever before. And for Engelmayer, who publishes in both national newspapers and underground comics, Israel provides a unique environment for artists to create comics that reach the majority and remain free to explore other modes of self-expression without having to please an audience.
The downside is that few underground artists, if any, can survive solely from their art. So some artists try their luck overseas.
Noga Rauch, an Israeli artist who lives in Paris and writes autobiographical stories, appeals to Israelis because she discusses funny incidents of culture clash taken from her personal experience. In her comic book, From 26 to 27, she recounts the story of Noga, a young, single Israeli girl searching for love. She finds it with a rather dirty French guy who at first glance she thinks might be homeless. The story of their relationship is full of hilarious scenes about realistic human misunderstandings, and the way in which she pokes fun at herself is similar to reading an illustrated version of Bridget Jones.
Because many young comics artists are using material taken from their own lives and experiences to discuss human relationships, their work is more "translatable" and appealing to other markets. But making foreign audiences understand their jokes, songs and plays on words is sometimes a challenge for artists.
In one of Engelmayer's comics, translated into German in the magazine Strapasin, the heroine is singing songs from the Six Day War as she flies her airplane. This presented a huge problem for translators because German military songs are so strongly tied to the Nazi era; the publishers struggled to find a way to produce the comic in German without sounding awful.
"My work is difficult for anyone outside Israel to understand, and I write only in Hebrew," says Engelmayer.
Michal Zori, a struggling artist who has published several comic books and has a small following in France, explains that because comic books are relatively unknown here, children are not exposed to the industry early enough to either enjoy it or understand it.
"Because they didn't grow up on comics, Israeli parents don't have the inclination to buy comics for their kids, and because the audience is so small, it's hard for Israeli comics artists to survive," says Zori.
Also, there are no university programs focusing solely on comic book illustration, so those artists who want to create comics are usually self-publishing. Israelis are more likely to encounter Israeli comics as adults - for example, in the work of Dudu Geva, the illustrator best known for his duck character, who died in February of a heart attack at the age of 55.
"Dudu Geva was the first artist to use popular Israeli culture in his comics and not superheroes. That influence is still felt in the stories emerging today," says Engelmayer.
For those young comics artists who are working to earn a living with their books - artists such as Abraham, Zeffren, Sandy and Abarbanel, Rauch and Zori - being Israeli may not provide them with a long and vast tradition to work from, but it certainly gives them a new path to forge.
"We have the advantage of coming from outside of the comic book box," says Sandy. "We don't have Superman or Asterix, so we're not trapped by a genre or a perspective."
Like all the others, Sandy is hoping that a fresh outlook will bring international recognition - and a paycheck to match.